"Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." - Rumi

Friday, May 15, 2009

What We Do Is Dangerous, In Case You Didn't Know

By Del Schlosser

Recently, a friend reached out to me; someone in the larger pagan community became aware of my friend's practices in the Path of Ordeal and was speaking out publicly against this sort of spirituality. As someone who has been active in both the BDSM and pagan communities for quite some time, it was something I didn't find very surprising. It's something that gets overlooked when we get wrapped up in the excitement of the mystery and edginess of it all; what we do is dangerous in so many ways.

Once a magician or spirit worker begins the journey of the Path of Ordeal, a lot becomes normalized in our lives that is still foreign to most mainstream pagans. Remember, the real popularity of what we now know as "paganism" is as much borne out of the Hippie movement of the 1960's as it is the underground occult communities of the 20s and 30s. Early writings that encourage modern Goddess worship make this abundantly clear, with concepts like the Wiccan Rede, ("Do what thou wilt, an it harm none"), which is mostly a bastardization of Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt be the whole of the law." It was such a concern, that people would abuse the power of magic to cause harm to others, that later authors would add the phrase "...an it harm none."

I belong to a pan-pagan organization that once suffered a fairly large organizational schism over the sacredness of sexuality and BDSM. This separation happened before I became a member, but the wounds from the split are still prevalent in the local pagan community. Those of us who grew up in North America are stewed in Protestant ethic, even if our families didn't ascribe to that particular spirituality. This movement has worked diligently for centuries to remove sex, blood, pain, risk, and the concept of life and death from our sense of the spiritual. Those who were closest to God were ones who could overcome these base human desires, to focus that energy towards the spiritual through their unfulfilled desire.

Yes, even modern-day pagans who are still breaking out of that mindset, not all of them will reach a place in their own journey where they understand and accept that ritual bloodletting, flogging, hook suspension, or whatever your flavor of sensation ordeal might be, is the same or equal to transcendental meditation, Reiki attunements, and crystal magic. The idea of challenge in general is usually beyond the scope of most American's concept of spirituality. They may even accept ritual sexuality, as long as it reflects a loving, supportive, energetically-connected relationship between the partners involved.

In specific, most pagans are drawn to the religion because anyone can experience imminent divinity (supposedly), anyone can declare themselves a religious leader, thinker, theologian, and in general, you can self-define where you fit in the imaginary spiritual hierarchy that we still carry over from our experiences of organized religion. Therefore, if someone else defines within the same religious spectrum, and yet is not ready to accept the role of challenge in their own religious exploration, those who practice Ordeal Path spirituality will be the antithesis of what drew them to the faith to begin with. In Ordeal, not everyone succeeds. There are very dangerous skill sets that we have to master, in both the physical and energetic realms, in order to do this work. It's not something you can learn by reading a book, communing with your Gods, or even attending a festival or three. You can literally kill someone if you declare yourself an Ordeal Master without a sufficient amount of training.

Take a note from the book of Tricksters; bucking the prevalent paradigm may seem "cool" from the outside because it takes obvious courage and chutzpah to practice (at any volume) what their heart says to, regardless of what their surrounding community says. However, it's not all awesome punk rock rebellion and celebrations of bravery. Working against the grain means that you put yourself up for public scrutiny, because you're easy to find and watch. You stand out from all the other practitioners who have maintained the status quo in terms of practice.

Ordeal Path is specifically about challenge, in which failure is an option. Maybe you can't take the pain , maybe you will die. We play with edges that most people are terrified of. What excites people drawn to this path is that they can overcome obstacles that most people never try. We fly, we survive incredible sensations, we take on purposeful injury and wear the scars like merit badges. Within a faith that focuses a lot of energy on healing, immortality, and right-living, we are constant reminders that as of now pain, suffering, and death are still part of the human experience.

This rubs a lot of pagans the very wrong way. By interacting with those who walk the path of Ordeal, they see ultimate failure. People don't want to face failure, especially in their lives of faith, where they're supposed to be able to escape the mundane experience and reach for the liminality of blessings. They work within a paradigm where the realm of Gods is benevolent, loving, warm, and safe. By doing this work, and sometimes by working with the Deities that accept this sort of work, we are painting a very different picture of what the realm of Gods might be. There are Gods that enjoy human suffering, feed on pain, and yet are not automatically malevolent to the human race.

When people who see themselves as religious leaders are challenged in their own faith, their positions of leadership can also be brought into scrutiny. We expect most of our ministers, reverends, and priests to be rock-solid in what they believe. They must serve as touchstones of the seeker's path, buoys in the storm of those who don't know what they believe. Even outside of paganism, in any religion when there are leaders who believe in opposition to another leader, there will always be conflict. It's in the leader's perceived best interest to speak out against false prophets, in order to maintain their steady connection to their own faith. In paths that do not accept challenge as a part of spiritual experience, their leaders absolutely must be stalwart in what they believe; otherwise, maybe they aren't the leaders they claim to be.

One of the reasons you don't find many Ordealists who create this sort of opposition is because we accept the condition of challenge as a part of our spiritual expression. We enjoy when someone disagrees with us, or points out a weakness in our belief. Since pushing boundaries, testing faith, and playing with new and different concepts are foundations in how we practice, we are only enthused when someone agrees to enter into considered debate with the validity of ordeal.

However, in order to be heard, people who disagree tend to turn up the volume. People rarely feel ambivalent about the role of BDSM in paganism; they're usually adamantly for or vehemently against it. So unlike disagreements over which pantheon could beat up which other pantheon in a dark alley, or whether water elementals really reside in the West regardless of where you live, sex and pain in modern spirituality is always loud.

A typical tactic of those who disagree with an entire movement, is to single out an individual and speak out against that particular person's practice, rather than addressing the movement as a whole. They choose their target mostly at random, unless the target is trying to work with the same demographic as the opposition (then the choice is easier). They phrase their arguments so as to make it about the person and their own ethics, rather than the entire movement. It makes it more difficult to debate concepts when the discussion is dissected down to the individual. I can't speak for every Ordeal Master in the Universe, even for all of the ones that I've personally worked with. But I'll sure as heck defend the validity of my chosen spirituality, if we're willing to talk about it in the larger strokes.

So in some ways, being publicly recognized as an Ordeal Master sets yourself up to be separated from the flock by those who don't understand or agree with What It Is That We Do. It's a danger we accept as part of the challenge of our path. It wouldn't be the Ordeal path if we ourselves weren't challenged in a variety of ways. We can lose face, lose followers, lose trust, lose our families and stability if we're not careful. In some states, we could face imprisonment. It's dangerous out there for people like us.

As much as being the local pagan in the leather jacket, oozing sex and mystery as part of your persona, might seem attractive and hip, it is almost never easy. Think long and hard about this before deciding how "out" you want to be.

Now, on the other side of the coin, there are benefits to announcing to the worlds of humans and Gods that you have decided to pursue the Ordeal Path. But that's an entry for another day.


  1. A very insightful and eloquent article.

    Another thing about people working against the grain, standing outside the norm, doing scary stuff that challenges: they tend to be perceived as Other, and the Other is a traditional target for peoples' fears and shadows. This kind of projection has happened down through history, and Pagans aren't immune to it... even though we've been the target for it ourselves.

  2. An interesting article about an aspect of paganism that I know very little of. I do have great respect for those who I know to be on an Ordeal path and am a bit shocked by the scandalousness that some pagans find in these acts. Do they not want others to undertake Ordeal paths simply because that is not a path they would consider? Do they honestly think they have the right to decide how another pagan experiences their Gods? These pagans are always free to vote with their feet without effecting those following Ordeal paths. To try to remove Ordeal paths from pagan experience completely is the height of self-centeredness.

    Perhaps I have self-selected my peer group to include only those who don't fit into the "most pagans" descriptions above and if that is the case, I'm glad for it. While the Ordeal path is not mine, I have learned from and valued the pain and suffering that I have experienced in my life - physical and emotional. Turning away from pain and suffering, not taking lessons from the darkness seems to me to be seeing only half the picture. Love and pleasure are wonderful but they are sweeter still when they are experienced as reflections of pain and suffering.

    But even so, I don't feel that Ordeal paths are valid paths to the divine because I can imagine some worth to them. They are valid because those who follow them say they are.

  3. Well done. I've had an article/essay rattling around in my skull for about a year now on what being an Ordeal Master *isn't*, this might be the spark I need to finally get oit written.

  4. @jasminewind One of the issues that Ordealists face is when we do what we do in the name of Gods or Goddesses that other people worship, we introduce the idea that these Gods or Goddesses may actually ask for, want, or at the very least accept this sort of sacrifice. (It's been my experience that there are, in fact, some Gods who absolutely abhor suffering, blood, pain, etc.)

    Where the trouble can lie is when a Priest, Shaman, Spirit-Worker, or other strong devotee of a specific pantheon, God/dess, or concept is challenged in their own perceptions by someone claiming to do these rituals in "their" God's name. This challenge comes twice; at first, that the God in question would want/accept/bless that sort of offering. That alone might be hard to perceive or accept. The backhand is, maybe the dedicant's own offering may seem lesser in comparison, or off the mark, or in some other way different enough to make them question, even for a moment, that what they've done may not be "good enough" (whatever the heck that really means.)

    My personal experience has been that when this challenge of faith occurs to someone who isn't hardwired for Ordeal-like experiences, to do two things - one, to loudly reproclaim their dedication to said God/Pantheon/Concept and their absolutely certainty that They have no interest in such things, and/or secondly to declare a particular practitioner (almost always someone working on behalf of their God/Pantheon/Concept) a fraud or false prophet.

    You know what? I consider myself to be a well-practiced Spirit Worker, and yet I would never, ever declare that I have the hard line on what a God would want from another human being. The hubris of that is beyond me on so many levels I can't begin to explain. I know what my personal relationship is with Thems I Serve, and I know that my job within that purview is between me and Them. This includes what I am asked to do on their behalf. I readily turn down people if what they want to do doesn't resonate with my own signal clarity; I don't provide this service for just any ol' Joe who asks. (Like I said earlier, there are some Gods who I believe do not enjoy these sorts of offerings.)

    I think that's what gets lost in the mix here. I would never presume to know beyond a doubt that a God, even one I claimed to know well, did not ask for a certain type of relationship (God-spouse, Monk/Nun, Priest, or Slave), a certain type of offering (music, art, life, blood, chastity), from someone who feels close to that God.

    ~Del Schlosser

  5. I need to edit a sentence up there (Del, bad on you for posting at 5am)

    "My personal experience has been that when this challenge of faith occurs to someone who isn't hardwired for Ordeal-like experiences, to do two things - one, to loudly reproclaim..."

    Should read:

    "My personal experience has been that when this challenge of faith occurs to someone who isn't hardwired for Ordeal-like experiences, they do two things - one, to loudly reproclaim

  6. Del, i think you hit the nail right on the head. That's certainly been what i've experienced within Heathenry. There's very little acceptance of the idea that the Gods would ask different things of different people.

    I also think that part of it, deep down inside, is the thought "well, if that's really legitimate, if God X is really asking that of HER, what's to keep Him from asking it of me?" Ironically, it's often those that preach tolerance the loudest within the community who are most threatened by ordeal and related practices and who lash out most dramatically and irrationally against its practitioners.

  7. @jasminewind: "But even so, I don't feel that Ordeal paths are valid paths to the divine because I can imagine some worth to them. They are valid because those who follow them say they are."


    Also, if one still needs convincing, talking to individual ordeal workers about the parts of their lives that aren't connected with the path can be illuminating. A well-adjusted person who seems to have a full life in addition to the "niche" spiritual work s/he does is a good argument for that path's beneficial effects.

  8. Elizabeth, you are so right. Ordeal work is an important part of what i do, but all in all, it's only one very small part of my practices. I think that in all the controversy over ordeal, this often gets lost. Ordeal makes us better, stronger, more useful human beings. If it doesn't, there's something wrong. At least that's the way i look at it.

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  10. Sorry - reposted for typos!

    Great article, Del. Most of my two cents have already been said in the comments.

    I just wanted to add that Ordeal was not a path I sought out for myself - the Gods laid it out for me, as they did for every other Ordeal worker I know. When I felt myself drawn to the Norse gods, I really thought I'd be doing mainly rune work. If I've learned anything in the past few months, it's not to assume what they want from me or anyone else. I agree, Del, that this assumption is the pinnacle of hubris.